This analysis focuses on cross-national views of the European Union, key European leaders and European political parties. The work builds on previous studies about views of global leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and views of the economy.
The analysis also includes views of how the EU handled the coronavirus outbreak. For this measure – as well as all others in the report – data is drawn from nationally representative surveys conducted June 10 to Aug. 3, 2020, in 14 advanced economies. Notably, the pandemic in Europe has worsened substantially since these surveys were conducted and thus this report focuses primarily on public attitudes and experiences during the summer, as well as how views of how the EU had handled COVID-19 at the time relate, more broadly, to views of the European Union.
This study was conducted in countries where nationally representative telephone surveys are feasible. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, face-to-face interviewing is not currently possible in many parts of the world. For this report, we use data from nationally representative surveys of 14,276 adults conducted over the phone with adults in the U.S., Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Outside of China, Europe was home to some of the first major coronavirus hotspots – as well as some of the most stringent early national quarantine requirements to curb the spread. Results of a summer survey – conducted before a second surge in cases began, in earnest, in September – indicate that people in most European Union nations approved not only of their national governments’ response to COVID-19, but also of how the EU had handled the outbreak.
Across the eight EU member nations surveyed between June and August 2020, a median of 61% said the EU had done a good job dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Approval was highest in Germany and the Netherlands, where 68% in each country applauded the bloc’s efforts. At least half or more in every EU country surveyed approved of the EU’s response.
The state of the pandemic in Europe during the summer 2020 survey period
On Oct. 29, the World Health Organization’s Europe director declared, “Europe is at the epicenter of this pandemic again.” His concerns came as the region reached a new weekly record for confirmed coronavirus cases (more than 1.5 million the week before his announcement); hospitalizations rose to levels unseen since the spring, when Europe had been the epicenter of the disease; and test positivity rates once again ran high. As of early November, multiple European governments have imposed new and stringent lockdown procedures, and protests against these measures have broken out in some countries.
Pew Research Center’s survey, conducted June 10 to Aug. 3, 2020, not only preceded this major spike in cases, but it took place at a time when new COVID-19 cases were relatively contained in the European Union. At the time of the survey, these EU countries were recording fewer new cases per day – especially compared with some of the previous spikes in April. For example, Italy had a total of 117 new cases per million people between July 1 and Aug. 1, while part of the survey was fielding – down precipitously from a total of 1,716 new cases per million between April 1 and May 1.
The limited number of new cases over the summer months – and the cessation of some travel restrictions and lockdowns – may have contributed to the relatively positive views most European Union residents had toward the EU’s handling of COVID-19 when polled. These views may have shifted since then, and they may continue to evolve as the pandemic does. Nevertheless, the relationships discussed in this report, such as how views of the EU’s response to COVID-19 are related to overall opinion of the EU, are important to understand. As this report indicates, views of the European Union are related to people’s assessments of its response to the pandemic, as well as people’s economic attitudes.
These positive evaluations also extended to the Brussels-based institution, more broadly, which a median of 66% rated favorably this summer. In Germany, EU favorability reached a record high in the more than 15 years Pew Research Center has been surveying on the topic, with 73% of Germans offering positive assessments of the bloc. In most other EU member states surveyed, ratings largely held steady or improved since last year. In the United Kingdom – in the Center’s first survey of the country since it formally left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020 – the 60% who said they had positive views of the EU is also a historic high, and up 6 percentage points since last year.
The United Kingdom is the only European country included in this survey that is not a member of the European Union, having left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020, three and a half years after the June 2016 Brexit referendum. But, in this first Pew Research Center survey since the country formally left the bloc, views of the European Union climbed to a new historic high, with 60% saying they had a favorable view of the Brussels-based organization.
Moreover, almost two-thirds in the UK (64%) said at the time of the survey – before the latest surge in European cases and new restrictions – that the EU had done a good job handling the coronavirus outbreak. This was significantly more than the 46% who said the UK itself did a good job dealing with the pandemic over the same period of time.
Indeed, across all nine European countries included in this survey, the British public stands apart for having the worst assessments of their own country’s response to the pandemic – while simultaneously having one of the more positive evaluations of the EU’s response. Britons who approved of the EU’s handling of COVID-19 were significantly more likely to have a favorable view of the organization, overall, than those who thought the EU had handled the outbreak poorly – 72% vs. 42%, respectively.
Britons were also very divided in their assessments of the EU. For example, 71% of Britons ages 18 to 29 expressed a favorable view of the EU, while only 49% of those 50 and older said the same. This 22 percentage point gap is the largest among the nine European countries surveyed. Similarly, Britons with a postsecondary education or more tended to have more favorable views of the EU than those with less education – and, once again, the 21-point educational gap is the largest across the European countries.
Britons who placed themselves on the left of the ideological spectrum were also more likely to have a favorable opinion of the EU than those who were on the ideological right, and the 29-point gap between those on the left and those on the right was the largest in Europe.
Partisan preferences also shaped EU assessments. Britons with favorable views of the governing Conservative Party were less likely than those with unfavorable views of the party to express a positive opinion of the EU. The same was true of Britons who had a favorable view of the Brexit Party, which campaigned on the UK leaving the EU in a “clean break.” However, among supporters of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the pattern was reversed: Those who had favorable opinions of each party were more likely to have a positive view of the EU than those with unfavorable opinions of the parties.
These deep divisions were also evident in assessments of Prime Minister Boris Johnson: 51% of Britons had confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs while 49% lacked confidence. In fact, fewer Britons expressed confidence in him than Macron (64%) or Merkel (76%).
As has regularly been the case in these surveys, younger people and those on the ideological left tended to have more positive views of the European Union than older age groups or those on the ideological right, respectively. And people with favorable views of right-wing populist parties tended to have less positive views of the EU than others.
When polled over the summer, in every European country surveyed, people who said the EU did well in its response to the pandemic were much more likely to have a positive view of the EU than those who thought the EU did a poor job dealing with COVID-19. Perceptions of the economy at the time of the survey – as well as optimism about the economic future – also colored views of the bloc. Those who thought their domestic economy was in good shape and those who expected their country’s economy to improve were both more likely to have favorable views of the EU and to approve of its handling of COVID-19 than people who thought the economy was in bad shape or expected the economy to worsen.
When it comes to confidence in the two European leaders widely credited with compromising in order to pass a 750 billion euro recovery plan for the bloc – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron – both were trusted to do the right thing regarding world affairs by around half or more in nearly every EU member state polled. In the case of Merkel, confidence in her leadership increased substantially since last year in Germany (up 7 percentage points), the Netherlands (+6) and Italy (+6) and stood at historic highs in Spain as well as several non-EU member states, including the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.
Confidence in Macron also increased significantly over the past year in Italy (+9 points) and Sweden (+6) and among several non-EU states including the UK (+9), Japan (+9) and the U.S. (+6). As was the case with attitudes toward the EU, views of both Merkel and Macron were related to assessments of how well the EU had done handling COVID-19.
Trust in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has overseen his country’s Brexit transition out of the European membership organization, was much more limited. Across the eight EU countries surveyed, a median of 36% had confidence in him to do the right thing regarding world affairs. Even in the UK itself, confidence in Johnson (51%) was lower than confidence in Macron (64%) and Merkel (76%).
People in these EU countries largely approved of the job their own countries had done handling COVID-19 when they were surveyed between June and August of this year. And, in many countries, this was related to favorable views of political parties. For example, in Germany, people who said the country had done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak were 50 percentage points more likely to have a favorable view of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Views of the ruling En Marche in France, too, were heavily colored by whether people thought the country had done a good job or bad job dealing with COVID-19.
The sense that the country had handled the pandemic well also colored views of some opposition parties. For example, in the Netherlands, those who thought their country had handled the pandemic well tended to have more positive views not only of the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and Democrats 66 (D66) but also of the Labour Party.
Against this backdrop, approval of many political parties was up significantly in the summer in comparison with the previous year. In Germany, for example, positive views of two of the ruling parties, CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), rose 14 and 12 percentage points over 2019, respectively. Ruling parties in Italy, the UK and the Netherlands also experienced significant bumps in approval. And opposition parties like the UK’s Labour Party as well as the Socialist Party and the Republicans in France also gained in the polls.
Over this same period, views of some right-wing populist parties – Forum for Democracy (FvD) in the Netherlands and Lega in Italy – fell by 8 and 15 points, respectively.
These are among the findings of a Pew Research Center survey, conducted June 10 to Aug. 3, 2020, among 7,970 adults in eight European Union member nations: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. Together, these eight European Union member states account for about 68% of the EU population and 79% of the EU economy, according to 2019 data from the World Bank. Additional findings come from a survey of the United Kingdom, conducted among 1,003 adults from June 10 to July 28, 2020.
Across these five non-European countries, evaluations of how well the European Union handled COVID-19 varied widely. In both Canada and the U.S., around six-in-ten or more said the EU had done a good job when surveyed this summer. In Australia, evaluations were mixed: 46% approved of the EU’s handling of the global pandemic while 45% said it had done a poor job. And in Japan and South Korea, half or more said the EU had done a bad job dealing with the outbreak (52% and 78%, respectively). While overall favorability of the EU also varied widely across these countries – from a low of 47% in Japan to a high of 71% in Canada – in each country, perceptions of how well the EU had done handling COVID-19 is related to favorability of the EU.